Serena Williams is in such luminous form that her opponents have now reached the stage of forgetting how to play tennis.
Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, just 21, went into last night’s Brisbane International final in high spirits. She had been a picture of steely focus all day, ready to play the match of her life against one of the greats of the sport.
Instead, after getting off to a bright enough start, she became a spectator like the rest of us. Every serve had been sent for a winner by the time she finished her follow through. She searched the cupboard, found no answers and duly fell apart.
“I don’t know how to play tennis when I play against you,” Pavlyuchenkova said on court after the match. Yes, things were that bad.
She’s not the only women’s player to feel that growing despair as Williams continues to exert total command over the sport. Going into the Australian Open, she appears almost unbeatable.
Later, Pavlyuchenkova expanded on the hopelessness that must surely be infecting the women’s ranks as Williams wins match after match after match. She’s lost just one of her past 35 and added title number 47 with her 50-minute, 6-2 6-1 beatdown on Pat Rafter Arena last night.
“No, it’s not harsh, it’s true. No, seriously, this was my fourth time and every time I play against her I was going on the court being confident and feeling well,” Pavlyuchenkova said.
“I started the match pretty well, I think, but when she’s on fire, I feel like there is not much I can do.
“All I know is that she is playing amazing. She hasn’t lost a match since August or something. Obviously nobody can stop her for the moment.”
Maybe nobody can stop Williams. Maybe the Australian Open is as good as over. World number one Victoria Azarenka had a chance in the Brisbane semi-finals but pulled the chute at the last moment, citing a toe infection inflicted by a barbaric pedicurist.
It was a telling manoeuvre from the top-ranked women, who has beaten Williams just once in 12 meetings. It’s possible her toe really was that bad but there’s little doubt she wanted to keep her powder dry should the pair reprise their lop-sided rivalry in Melbourne.
Thus in the final, Pavlyuchenkova was little more than a sacrificial lamb for the third seeded
The pair occasionally sing karaoke duets and fittingly, Williams ended up celebrating her victory by heading to Ben’s Vietnamese, a famed Brisbane karaoke haunt, and belting out Elton John’s Your Song with a group of dazzled strangers.
And so to Melbourne, where at the age of 31, Williams believes she is playing the best tennis of her career. Centred and relaxed in all aspects of life, it’s clear she is playing a different game to even her best-credentialed opponents.
“It feels really calm, like I’m in a really calm place and I’m not panicking, I’m not over thinking it and not, you know, blasting every ball. I just get really calm and kind of serene,” Williams said.
Serene. See what she did there? Williams probably had time to think of that line during one of the rallies. Winning has all become so routine that after the match, she accidentally thanked her dad in the crowd, even though he wasn’t there.
Williams won’t be the top seed in Melbourne but is the raging and deserved favourite. She’s short enough with oddsmakers to try and look for value elsewhere but there’s a good case to suggest it’s free money.
A new coach in Patrick Moratoglou, a new potential love interest in, er, Patrick Moratoglou (she wouldn’t confirm) and re-infused lust for complete domination of the sport has her on a historical high.
“I think it probably is (the best tennis of my career). I was looking at a lot of old matches on YouTube and I feel like right now I’m playing some of my best tennis,” Williams said.
“I feel like I want to do better and play better still and I’ve always felt like I could play better. So that was one of my main goals.”
Such was her onslaught in the Brisbane final that it was starting to encroach on tennis perfection. By the end of the second set, you almost expected starbursts to fly from the ball every time she crunched another winner.
Williams said she’s not in the zone just yet but that mystical sporting land, where even shanked mis-hits top the highlight reel, may not be far away.
“I’ve been in the zone a few times. I don’t know if I was in ‘the’ zone today. I was definitely heading in that direction. I’ve been in the Twilight Zone where I just felt so good I couldn’t do anything wrong,” Williams said.
If Williams reaches the final, the top ranking will be hers, as well as Open crown number six. Yet she insists she wasn’t taking anything for granted despite her complete domination of the women’s ranks since Wimbledon.
“Yeah, I’m not overconfident at all. I was really nervous. Every match I play I get nerves and feel completely like that,” Williams said.
“I never underestimate anyone. There are so many players that aren’t in the top 32 that I can draw in the first round as well.
“Don’t to have worry about me getting overconfident.”
That sentiment alone should send chills down the spine of those trying to stop her from adding a 16th Grand Slam title to the cabinet.